The rain clouds were gathering again, and he was being followed.

His pursuer, whoever it was, did nothing at all to alert him of their presence; it was instinct alone that told him, but Sasuke didn't need more than that. There was definitely someone coming. And they were coming straight for him.

Sasuke cursed under his breath, his fingers tightening around his sore shoulder. He hadn't expected to be found out so quickly, and adrenaline wasn't taking him nearly as far as he had hoped. Within seconds of taking to the treetops, a throbbing ache had spread through his entire left arm, from the curse seal to his fingertips, which was only made worse by the cold weight of his rain-drenched clothing. From there, he had quickly become aware of just how much punishment the rest of his body had taken in the past twenty-four hours.

And now that he really had a reason to run - he shouldn't have hesitated with the first Chidori and wasted the chakra, why had he hesitated? - every leap seemed to take twice as much energy as the last.

And the pursuer was gaining on him. He could feel it.

Finally, with a hasty glance at his surroundings, Sasuke abandoned his path and came to land on a thick branch, his back to the tree trunk. Another second, and a kunai was in his hand. This had to be quick. As soon as the shinobi came into sight, he would throw the kunai, and it would hit perfectly - it would, it had to - and take them down.

Not kill them, he added silently. There was no reason to kill them. Just stop them, and buy enough time so that he could get past the gates, and then he would…well, he'd…

Sasuke scowled at the ground, frustrated with himself. He should have waited longer, planned this better, left when he was sure of every step. Instead, he'd panicked. And now this shinobi knew where he was, and his chakra stores were almost gone, and he had no idea what his next move was supposed to be.

He wasn't given the chance to dwell on it for long. A barely-audible rustle of leaves and a flash of color from the corner of his eye told him that the moment had come. Sasuke inhaled so sharply that it hurt, and in the same moment he'd corrected his stance, altered his grip, drawn back, and--

And in the same moment that he realized that it was Tenten he was about to strike down, a shuriken sliced through the air from above and struck the kunai from his hand.

Sasuke's eyes went wide as he realized his mistake, and as if to agree with him, 'Tenten' landed silently - too silently - on another branch, then vanished in a puff of smoke. A Bunshin…that means--

He whipped his head forward again, and black eyes met brown.

There she was, standing directly before him, eyes guarded and arms at her sides. An instinctive flinch set Sasuke's back against the tree, and his heart gave an extra pound against his ribs with the realization that he'd trapped himself.

For several moments, neither of them moved a muscle. She seemed to be looking for something in his eyes, but Sasuke found he couldn't do the same. He was frozen. Even his breath stopped for a moment, and when it resumed, it sounded far too loud in his ears.

He couldn't read her intent in her face. That alone put him on edge.

A distant rumble of thunder, a few stray droplets from the sky, and then she broke the spell with a shallow sigh. Something shifted in her expression, somehow making it soften and harden at once. The corner of her mouth twitched up, though it wasn't quite a smile, and that unnerved him even more.

"Hey, Sasuke."

Chapter 10: Possession

Tenten pulled in her breath when Sasuke met her gaze, edging himself back against the tree trunk like a cornered animal. Desperation had put something wild in his eyes.

She allowed herself to slowly take in the rest of him, noting the position of his feet, the tension in his stance, the shadows around his eyes. His gaze never left her face. When he made no move to answer, she took a deep breath. "I thought I'd find you around here."

Sasuke didn't move, still frozen. "What was the clone for?" he finally asked, and the unforgiving hoarseness in his voice made her swallow hard.

"To find you before you got too far," she replied aloud, coolly holding his gaze. "I heard you've been pretty hard to pin down today."

He answered her with silence again, and she resisted the urge to nervously bite her lip. When she had taken off after him, adrenaline alone had guided her footsteps; she hadn't even considered just what she intended to do if she found him.

Wordlessly she observed a few more details of his appearance - the way his left arm hung as if it were heavier than his right, and the fresh bruises only now starting to come through from the fight with Naruto, and the state of his clothes, drenched from the passing rain. An unbidden image of the night they'd stumbled into his house from the storm flashed through Tenten's mind, making her ache somehow.

She had prepared herself to treat him like an enemy. But now, seeing him, all she wanted to do was bring him back - him, Sasuke, the boy who had challenged her techniques, her abilities, her way of seeing the world.

He was in there, somewhere. He had to be.

"Sasuke…" Tenten let some of the careful detachment in her face fall away, earnestly meeting his gaze. "Look, I know…I know that it's been really hard for you since your…" something suddenly told her that mentioning his brother may not be a wise choice, "…since you were attacked. But this…" She sighed. "Let's just go back, okay?"

Sasuke's eyes narrowed.

"You getting declared a missing-nin won't fix anything," Tenten went on, her words quickening. "And you're injured. If you go back now, at least--"

"No." She lost his gaze behind his hair, which cast a foreboding shadow over his face. "You're just like the rest of them." Tenten opened her mouth to protest, but he abruptly met her eyes again, interrupting in a stronger voice. "Don't bother, if that's why you're here. It's useless."

Tenten's eyebrows slowly drew together in a frown. For a moment it wasn't Sasuke standing before her, but a younger Neji, cold and bitter and resigned to fate. She had to take a deep breath then, the thought of Neji making her chest tighten. Her eyes focused once again on Sasuke's. "You think I'm just going to let you go?"

"I said, don't bother." Dark eyes glinted, and his chapped lips curled into a grim, feverish smirk. "I'm already gone."

A burst of smoke blinded Tenten before she could fully register the words, and it was only when she looked closer that she was able to make out the shape of a rain-dampened log where Sasuke had been.

Cursing through her teeth, Tenten leapt higher into the treetops and immediately spotted the red-and-white Uchiha crest bolting toward the clearing, beyond which it was only a matter of minutes before he would hit the village gates.

She shot after him without a second thought.

As the rain began to pick up once more, cold and sharp against her face, Tenten found herself seized with a determination unlike anything she had felt before. Now that she had seen him with her own eyes, heard the poison in his voice, it was painfully clear that if he made it through those gates again - even if he were caught, brought back by force - he would never really find his way back.

The strength of her reaction to that thought alone made it hard for her to breathe.

"He won't respond to anything, except when anyone tries to touch him."

Yes, that's what it was reminding her of. He was acting just like after his brother had attacked him, treating every touch as a threat. The thought made her ache with both sympathy and frustration; that Orochimaru guy couldn't have timed this any better, sending his men while Sasuke was still off-balance, still healing. He'd never had a chance.

And if he felt like everyone was out to get him, then what else would he do but run?

A glance downward told Tenten that she was practically on top of him now, overtaking him from above while he darted across the lower branches. Cold steel was in her hands in her next breath.

She didn't know if she had any chance of getting through to him. If his teammates couldn't do it, there was certainly no reason she would be able to.

But she would try. No matter what, she would try.

The scream of steel only gave Sasuke a moment's warning, and he just barely managed to dodge one kunai, then another, and another. Damn it.

He'd known from the beginning that he wouldn't shake her that easily. Tenten was a stubborn girl; she wouldn't stand by if she thought he was wrong. But he'd hoped…he didn't know what he'd hoped for.

Another kunai swiped at his side, coming dangerously close to hitting its mark, and Sasuke forced a little more of his dwindling chakra through his limbs to increase his speed. There was a dull thud when the kunai lodged itself in the branch he'd just left, and his confidence rose a bit; she was stubborn, but she also cared too much about others. Her aim was better than this - she probably just didn't want to chance hurting him too badly, and she would have to run out of blades eventually. As long as he could use the forest to stay partially concealed, he still had a chance.

But then a strange sound reached his ears. Frowning, Sasuke dared a glance behind him, and his eyes widened at the sight of the same kunai dislodging itself from the branch, then shooting after him once more, as if it were alive. What the…

Looking around, Sasuke realized that that kunai wasn't the only one. The few kunai she had thrown were whistling through the trees at his sides and his back. A flash to his right, and he quickly changed his direction, narrowly avoiding one of the blades. Another shot out in front of him, and he screeched to a halt before changing his course again - but not before catching the glint of amber chakra in the kunai's wake. A wire…his eyes narrowed. So that's how she's doing it.

But there was little he could do with that. The blades weren't slowing, and so neither could he. If she was putting chakra through the wires, a normal blade wouldn't be able to cut them. It was a good technique, but when had she learned it? Not once had she done anything like that when they were training - or had enough control of her chakra to do it, for that matter.

Then again, it had been weeks since the last time they'd sparred. In spite of himself, Sasuke found himself wondering just what else he'd missed since the day Itachi reappeared.

Lowering his eyes, Sasuke silently shook the thought away. It didn't matter. It wouldn't change anything.

A blade hurtled by an inch from his ear then, bringing him back to the matter at hand. Sasuke took a glance upward mid-dodge and just glimpsed her, darting through the trees with dry leaves fluttering in her wake. He found himself frowning again, irritated - what was she doing? Her technique couldn't be easy on her chakra stores, and if she'd wanted to hit him, he knew she could have done it already. Why was she drawing this out?

But then it hit him - all she'd been doing up to this point was forcing him to dodge, and…

And change his course.

His eyes went wide, but it was too late. All at once, the forest gave way to an open area that he knew all too well.

The second his momentum carried him into the Uchiha clearing, he had hardly registered the sound of one kunai striking another before a blade flashed by an inch in front of his face, forcing him to skid to a halt. Then more blades began to fly, weaving through the trees and shooting by inches away from him with no real pattern, trapping him where he stood.

Then, all at once, they stopped.

Suddenly the clearing was cloaked in an unnerving silence, and Sasuke found himself breathing harder than he should while he panned his gaze around the area, unsure what exactly she had done. After a second, though, the rain answered his unspoken question, flashing amber here and there and seeming to stop in mid-air. Sasuke felt his stomach clench.

It was the wires. She had wound them completely around the small clearing, all the way to the tops of the trees, and the amber could only mean that she was still running chakra through the wires. If she was, they would be practically unbreakable.

She had guided him right into her trap.

As if the realization had summoned her, there was a soft gust of air as Tenten dropped to the ground behind him, a little winded for her own part. A shift of clothing told him when she straightened again. After that, she was still.

Of their own accord, the corners of Sasuke's mouth turned up a little, grimly. "Chakra control," he murmured without turning around, almost a question, but not quite.

She gave no indication that she shared the same sense of irony, but quietly confirmed it for him. "Chakra control."

Sasuke swallowed hard, failing to soothe his dry throat, then slowly turned around to face her. No use trying to run. Not only had she executed this trap flawlessly, but the open area made it impossible for him to hide. It was perfect.

"So," he said, meeting her eyes, "what now?"

She didn't answer right away, and Sasuke silently dared her to do what he knew she'd come here to do - try to reason with him, then try to force him, then incapacitate him and take him back. He wasn't blind to his limitations; he'd wasted far too much energy fighting Naruto. If she wanted to take him back, she would do it. But even if she did succeed, she couldn't stop him from trying again.

"Now…" Tenten finally said, her voice quiet and unreadable. "Now, I want to know why."

Sasuke blinked, surprise reaching his face for just a moment, and that seemed to give her hope. "I want to understand it, Sasuke. Why do you have to…" She paused, looking down as if hoping she would find the right words there. "…Why are you doing it this way?" she finally asked. "Why him?"

For a second, Sasuke could only stare at her without answering, suddenly overwhelmed by a memory of the time he'd first attacked her, when she'd stayed in the clearing and waited for him to wake up, just to ask him why. And now she was doing the same thing, asking him why, when no one else had. A wisp of guilt from that night murmured at the back of his mind before he viciously beat it back.

Outwardly, he only scowled and looked away.

At his silence, Tenten pushed further. "They're saying that you're going to that Sannin Orochimaru for power, but…that isn't the only reason, is it?" She didn't ask it like someone who knew the answer. Instead there was hope in her voice, hope that he must know better, dismissing power as a superficial reason. Somehow, that made anger start to boil in the bit of his stomach.

She was losing patience with him. "Sasuke--"

"I explained this."

He couldn't see her face, but she didn't respond, and Sasuke let his eyes slip shut. "He gave me his power of his own will," he said, one hand pulling into a fist. Looking up again, he met her gaze full on. "And I accepted."

This time it was Tenten's eyes that narrowed, for the first time. "What about your power?" she asked quietly.

Sasuke kept silent. She didn't wait. "You're telling me you'd rather become a criminal, and…and leech off the person that attacked you and murdered our Hokage, than see how far you can go?" The honest disbelief in her face made him want to look away; even now, it reminded him of the way his stomach had always crawled when he knew his father was disappointed with him. It took effort to hold her gaze.

Her expression didn't change. "You, Sasuke?" she asked again. "What about--"

"If I stay here," he interrupted, irrationally angry at her for making him think of his father, "this is as far as I can go."

"You're thirteen!" she snapped back on the same breath, the disbelieving expression morphing into disapproval. "How could you know how far you can go? You've…" She paused a moment, emitting the same frustration that Naruto had vocalized. "You've gotten so much better just since I met you. How can you think that--"

"It's not good enough!" Fire rushing through his blood, Sasuke shot an arm out in a wide gesture to the village as a whole. "None of this is good enough!"

"Sasuke, you--"

"No!" he interrupted, suddenly overcome with the anger that had been slowly building in him since the moment he had heard Itachi's name. "I'm not like the rest of you. I have a different purpose." Tenten opened her mouth again, but he didn't let her speak. "Orochimaru saw that! He understands that I was born to be an avenger. That is my--"

"--Fate?" Tenten finished for him, her eyes and voice suddenly cold. Sasuke found he couldn't really deny it; she wasn't wrong. Finding that he had nothing to say, she continued. "Fine. But there's nothing that says you can't avenge your family on your own, with the power they gave you. You really think they'd want you to sell yourself out to someone like--"

"Shut up!" Sasuke shot back, anger rapidly rising in his chest and making the words come out as a shout. She had no right…no right to even… "You don't know anything about my family. You don't even know what a family feels like, so don't think you know what it feels like to lose one!"

"I don't!" Tenten barked back, both of her fists clenching. "But I do know what a coward looks like!"

Sasuke's face opened up with shock, but Tenten didn't look away. "The person I met in this clearing isn't a coward. But you, you're…" Such was the depth of her emotion that she bowed her head for a moment to pull in a breath before swinging her gaze back to his again, and for a moment it wasn't Tenten standing before him, but Naruto, gripped by passion about something he didn't understand. "Now you're just being a self-serving coward! Since when would you rather hide behind someone than fight for yourself? Since when do you make excuses about limits and destiny? What kind of person does that?!"

"Save your breath," Sasuke interrupted, feeling a strange combination of pleasure and discomfort at the fact that she was getting so upset. But this was better. Anger he could deal with. "I've heard it all before. You're just like the rest of them." His eyes hardened. "Nothing you say will change my mind. Even if you take me back now, don't think I won't try it again. My purpose is different than yours."

"Stop that!" Tenten snapped, fire in her eyes. "Stop hiding behind this stupid fate idea! You sound just like--"

But she cut herself off then, and finally she was the one to look away. Interesting.

"Who?" he dared her after a moment, catching her eye. "That Hyuuga bastard?"

Tenten's eyes flashed, and he didn't even see her pull back before she'd closed the distance between them and slammed her fist into his jaw.

The punch nearly knocked Sasuke off his feet, and a dull ache immediately began to spread through Tenten's hand, but she didn't care. She felt no satisfaction when the impact made him spit out blood.

"Don't you dare say anything about him," she warned in almost a whisper, unable to keep emotion from shaking her voice. Not when you're the reason he had to fight that shinobi. Not when they had to bring him back like that, because of you. "Don't you dare."

Sasuke didn't move for a second, still bent back from the force of the punch, his hair shielding his eyes. Then, in a movement too sudden for her to react, he shot forward and drove his fist into her stomach.

Tenten gasped, doubling over his arm with wide eyes, the air forced out of her lungs. All around them, the wires she'd wound around the clearing flickered with amber as her chakra wavered.

Then Sasuke's voice was against her ear, dark and low. "How long can you hold this technique?"

Tenten gritted her teeth, then stubbornly pushed more of her chakra into the wires, stabilizing them. He didn't need to know that it was painful to keep the wires taut with chakra even for this long.

With a small huff against her ear, Sasuke pulled his arm back and brought his elbow down on the back of her neck in a single motion, sending her sprawling to all fours. Tenten cursed inwardly; he was stronger now. Standing there arguing with him had helped save some of her chakra, but the technique was still depleting it, and all the while he had been regaining his own. And if he weakened her enough, the technique would fail.

And he'd be gone.

Grimacing, Tenten thought fast and swept a leg out, taking Sasuke's feet out from under him and making him hit the ground hard. Then she was shooting forward, grabbing his shoulders and slamming them into the ground, the red anger from before rekindling itself with the realization that she could fail.

"Do you know what happened to those ninjas you were traveling with?" she demanded, thoughts of Neji fueling her words as much as her body. She didn't wait for him to respond, climbing on top of him to keep him down. "They were defeated. All of them. Do you know who killed them?" she pressed through her teeth, forcing his shoulders back to the ground when he tried to lash out again and keeping him there with her forearm across his chest. Shifting her weight to that elbow, she leaned down over her arm, forcing him to look at her by putting their faces inches apart. Dark eyes met darker while their bangs mingled against his forehead.

When Tenten spoke again, her voice came out strikingly quiet. "Eight genin, and one twelve-year-old chuunin."

Sasuke kept silent, but his eyes blazed.

"Those are the ones who promised you power, right?" she went on, sweat beading on her forehead in her effort to keep him down. His body was tensing; his movements were getting more desperate. "People are saying they were cursed, too. Like you. So there's the extent of that guy's power. They couldn't even stand up to ninjas of the lowest rank--"

"I don't care!" Sasuke shot back, struggling to no avail. It looked like she'd finally hit on something. All at once, Sasuke seemed to grow stronger with the anger to fuel him, making it far more difficult to hold him there. "I'm - not - like them!"

A last push, and suddenly Sasuke had managed to flip them over, straddling her waist and getting in a direct punch to her jaw. She barely noticed the blood that trickled from the side of her mouth-she was focused instead on the way he'd hit her. It wasn't the punch of someone whose only objective was to get away; there was fear behind it, too. He'd hit her like someone being told something they didn't want to hear.

Sasuke pulled back to hit her again, but at the last moment she caught his fist with both hands, wincing as the chakra in the wires flickered again. In a move she'd taught herself after being pinned this way one too many times during her spars with Neji, she used his own weight against him to throw him off balance, then turned them halfway over and used both legs to kick him away from her, making him land hard on his back near the broken tree.

In the same moment, she launched forward, nothing in her mind but the task of pinning him down again, keeping him here. She hardly noticed the way his hand shot out to grab the first thing he could find as she neared him, her mind immediately dismissing the motion.

It was a moment too late that Tenten realized her mistake.

She barely had time to register the flash of light on metal before a sharp pain blossomed in her chest, stopping her in her tracks. All at once her limbs froze, her breath catching in her throat. The fire in her veins turned to ice.

She looked down, and it took an endless second for her to recognize the tiny Uchiha fan on the kunai that was buried to the handle under her ribs.


For far too long, Sasuke could only stare at the kunai gripped in his hand, uncomprehending in the sudden stillness. Something cold rushed through his body when something warm rushed over his hand.

He heard Tenten swallow hard, and then he was staring directly into her eyes, only inches away from his. She took a shuddering breath. When she spoke, he could feel her muscles clenching around the blade.

"…Then who are you?"

Trembling limbs gave out, and she dropped hard to her knees, and all around them, the wires surrounding the clearing dulled and drifted to the ground with her. Sasuke automatically moved with her to keep the kunai from going in any deeper, but instead the blade slid out of her with sickening ease, the metal dyed crimson. A choked sound escaped Tenten's throat; then she slumped to the ground, gasping.

Sasuke couldn't move. His mind wouldn't absorb it. The blade quivered as Tenten's blood slid down the handle, obscuring his clan symbol before reaching his fingers, and he realized that he was shaking.

This couldn't have happened. No, this wasn't supposed to happen, he hadn't…his fingers had just closed around it, and…he hadn't meant to actually…

His eyes found her again, and the world seemed to tilt, making his eyes go wide and his lungs suck in air until they burned, as if preparing for a scream that wouldn't escape.

Watching her lying there, her face going pale while blood trickled from her mouth and steadily soaked through her shirt, all he could see was his mother.

And all too suddenly the world snapped back into focus, as if every moment since Itachi's reappearance had been a series of too-bright fever-dreams. He was sitting there with a bloody kunai in his hand while Tenten bled, and now it was clear, and close, and far too real.

And he saw it. Every step, exactly as it had happened before. He'd followed every footstep of the last person he ever wanted to follow.

I think I understand you a little more now, Brother. He had thought that. He had thought that, and gotten satisfaction from it. And he had been right; but now he really saw why he'd understood him so well. Every move until this moment had led him right into his brother's shadow.

And all that was left was for the victim to die, and the murderer to disappear. And that had been exactly what he was going to do.

A wave of nausea swept through him with the magnitude of the realization, and he dropped the kunai as if it had burned him, unable to tear his eyes away from Tenten as her body began to tremble, as her pupils dilated to turn brown eyes black. She was dying, and he…

He was just sitting there.

The thought shot electricity through his limbs, and then he was scrambling to Tenten's side, his mind blank. "Tenten…" he said, and his voice shook. Her eyes squeezed shut in a wince, but she didn't respond. Sasuke stifled the urge to shake her. "Tenten!" he tried again. Nothing. For a moment he just knelt there with his hands hovering over her, completely blanking on what he was supposed to do, but knowing with every fiber of his being that he had to do it, because…

Because he wasn't Itachi.

Sasuke let out his breath all at once, his body responding physically to the weight of it. He only absently noticed his eyes had started moistening with the realization that he didn't know how to save her.

But he would try. He wasn't Itachi. He didn't have to be Itachi…he had a choice, he still had a choice. He didn't have to be bound to the words of the man he hated most.

("You must hate, spite, and survive pathetically. Run and run, and cling desperately to life…")

I won't do as you say.

His breath quickened when he saw just how much blood Tenten was losing, and finally he animated, one hand digging desperately into her hip pouch on a vain hope. The panicked tears heating the backs of his eyes were propelled even closer to leaking out by the relief that rushed through him when his fingers closed around a spare roll of bandage. He jerked it out and feverishly unwound it, his jaw setting with renewed resolve.

("Sasuke-kun will seek me, to seek power.")

He grimaced.

Either of you.

His hands were shaking so hard that it took three tries to undo the bottom of her shirt and fold up the soaked fabric, giving him a full view of the merciless gash under her ribs. The wind blew strikingly cold against his face, and he realized that the tears had already fallen.

I'll surpass you in my own way.

Gasping back hopelessness, he slid one arm under her, ignoring the fire shooting from his shoulder to his fingertips. He lifted her upper body off the ground, wincing when a hoarse, pained sound was torn from her throat. When he straightened on his knees, her head tilted forward to land on his shoulder, her body limp as a rag doll against him.

Her breath caught, freezing his blood, and he lost hope for a moment, bowing his head into the almost-embrace and squeezing his eyes shut. "Stay awake," he whispered against her ear. "You have to stay awake." It was less of a command and more of a plea, with a tremor in his voice that he hated. "You have to."

New strength flooded through him when her fingers curled into the back of his shirt in reply.

Silently, he began to wind the bandage around her.

And I'll do it with my own power.

She winced when he pulled the bandage tight, and he looked around desperately, almost afraid to let go of her. He'd bought her time, but he had no idea how much, and he didn't know what to do, and if she died he could never forgive himself because she had never done anything to hurt him and he would be a murderer just like him and--

His name whispered out of her, physically jerking him back to reality and steeling his resolve. There was no time for useless thoughts.

Tightening his grip, Sasuke used his good arm to move hers around his neck, fear pricking in his chest when too-cold fingers touched his skin. "Hold on," he told her, grasping the blackened branch of the broken tree to steady them while his other arm locked around her waist, and he clenched his teeth when his shoulder throbbed in protest. Each shattered breath against his neck reminded him why it was worth it. "We're going back."

She flinched against him. "We?" she managed before stifling a cough.

Weakened fingers gripped the branch before he answered, and he was surprised at how easy it was.


He wasn't sure, but he thought he felt a weak smile in her next breath.

It took everything in him just to stand, holding on to the burnt branch as if it were his life source. His overworked limbs felt like lead, especially with Tenten's added weight, and just that small movement made his vision swim, but it didn't matter. The determination that had guided his every turn up to this point was transformed, reborn: he would do this, because he had to do it. It wasn't a question of whether he could. If it killed him, he would save her.

And so, holding Tenten close, Sasuke turned with clear eyes, and took the first step towards home.

They moved slowly, one shaky step after another. It was all Tenten could do to cling to Sasuke with arms that were slowly going numb while her vision doubled and blurred. She tried to ease the strain on him in any way she could - he was so tired, beyond tired, she could feel it in every step he took - but there was little she could do.

At one point Sasuke's legs began to buckle under him, and she immediately moved to steady him, reaching down deep for the strength to hold both of them upright. She succeeded. For a second, it had looked like he was going to break down again. But he didn't, and she just managed to keep her balance, and they kept moving, supporting each other with bodies too weak to do anything more.

But Tenten knew it wouldn't last. It wrenched at her, because Sasuke needed her to be okay, and she was good at being what people needed her to be, but this…

This wasn't something she could fight.

And it was sealed for her when the next step filled her mouth with the taste of copper. The world spun, and then her feet weren't on the ground anymore, and Sasuke was speaking to her in that terrified voice again, but she couldn't understand a word, and…

And someone was coming.

Her eyes snapped open, and she tried to tell Sasuke, but the words were lost between her mind and her throat. Everything was dimming. Vaguely she felt Sasuke's hands pressing down over her heart, trying to…what? She couldn't think…

But she felt it again, someone's presence getting closer - why wouldn't her voice work? In a final effort, Tenten drew her hand up and miraculously found Sasuke's wrist, closing her fingers around it. If she got his attention, maybe he would feel it too, and…and then…

Oh. Now she couldn't feel it anymore.

She couldn't feel the presence, or the ground against her back - was she falling? - or the wind against her skin. All she could feel was Sasuke's pulse racing under her fingers, anchoring her to the moment.

And now even that was starting to fade.

Tenten tried once more to say his name, and finally, miraculously, her mouth obeyed. "Sasuke." He didn't stop doing whatever he was doing, but she knew he'd heard. It made her sad to look at him; he'd never looked so scared. Why, she wondered…scared for her, of all people. Or was he scared that she wouldn't forgive him this time? She couldn't let him think that…wincing with even the small effort, she gave his wrist a squeeze. "It's okay, Sasuke." I forgive you.

Sasuke made a strange, choked sound, and the wind blew, and then she was being carried by it, carried away. Neji…Lee…Sasuke…it's okay.

When Tenten's hand went limp, slowly slipping away from his own, it took everything in Sasuke not to scream. This can't be happening. This can't be happening. Refusing to believe what both eyes and instincts were telling him, he re-formed the hand seal and pushed down on her chest again, trying to force chakra from a body that had no more to give. His consciousness wavering, he formed the seal a third time--

And a third hand shot out of nowhere and covered his own, pressing down with him and unleashing a powerful burst of chakra. Tenten's body jerked, and then…

And then she breathed.

Sasuke's eyes went wide, nearly-forgotten hope rushing through him. Then, finally fully realizing that they weren't alone, he swung his gaze around to the third shinobi.


Kakashi-sensei gave no reply, instead fishing a small container out of his kunai pouch and tapping out two deep blue pills that Sasuke didn't recognize. He could only watch in rapt numbness while his sensei gently lifted Tenten's head and eased the pills down her throat. He hardly noticed when two of Kakashi-sensei's biggest nin-dogs came up behind him and held him in place with a massive paw on each of his shoulders.

After a moment, Tenten's breathing seemed to come easier, and just a bit of color returned to her face. Kakashi-sensei moved to check for any other injuries, and Sasuke swallowed hard.

"Take her back," he finally said, his voice nearly gone. His sensei silently met his gaze, but the moment was interrupted when Pakkun leapt down from the trees, immediately followed by Gai-sensei.

"…Take her back," Kakashi-sensei echoed quietly, glancing toward Gai, who had gone pale at the sight of his student's condition. "I'll take care of things here." Gai nodded, draping his Chuunin vest over Tenten before carefully scooping her up and vanishing into the trees.

Sasuke watched them go until he couldn't see them anymore, exhaustion weighing him down. He felt his sensei's eyes on him without looking, and answered him without being asked. "I take responsibility," he said softly. "I'm not…" His voice cracked, and he lowered his eyes. "I won't become like him."

A muted sigh, and then one of the nin-dogs' paws was replaced with the firm grip of Kakashi-sensei's hand. "No. You won't." The grip let up a bit. "You've proven that." Then there was a sharp prick at the back of his neck, and blackness descended fast, enveloping him in unconsciousness.

And finally, finally, he was able to let go.

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